Yet another painful Calvary Chapel story

When I first saw this story, I blanked out and said to myself, “Surely this must be a follow-up story on that San Bernardino Sun item that Ted Olsen at the Christianity Today blog wrote up. It must be strange for the Los Angeles Times to have to chase a story like that.”

Then I noticed that the names were all different, even though some of the facts and themes about the Calvary Chapel world seemed somewhat similar. This is, in fact, a whole new story full of all kinds of painful twists and turns for the charismatic superstar Chuck Smith and the 1,100 or so independent congregations that grew out of his Jesus People revivals so long ago in the late 1960s and early ’70s.

So is there is some kind of virus making the rounds these days in the world of hyper-independent charismatic superchurches in Southern California? What is the bigger story here, something deeper than all the painful human details of “he said,” “they said,” “he denied”?

Here is where reporters Roy Rivenburg (a friend of mine, I should note) and Donna Horowitz begin to focus on a larger question: What kind of oversight exists in all of these independent congregations, which operate from sea to shining sea as one of the most powerful change elements in modern American Protestantism? Who is supposed to come to the aid of Pastor Joe Sabolick and his estranged older brother, Pastor George Sabolick, and all of the sheep who are loyal to one or the other? Who is in charge?

That would seem to be the police, the lawyers and, like it or not, Chuck Smith. Is that the reality woven into this sad tale?

. . . Smith didn’t let his protege entirely off the hook. Sabolick showed “perhaps a carelessness in finances,” Smith said. He cited two examples: In one, Sabolick used a church credit card to buy boots and clothes for a visiting Australian singer whose shoes were held together with duct tape.

In another, while trying to help a young girl, he “gave her things and it was misinterpreted as a romantic gesture. Joe is a very giving person, but you’ve got to keep better records on spending.”

Sabolick’s touchy-feely manner didn’t help, Smith said. When asked if he advised Sabolick to curb displays of physical affection, Smith replied: “Oh my, yes. Billy Graham says don’t touch the money and don’t touch the girls.”

But Smith saw no reason to bar Sabolick from the ministry. In recent weeks, the Calvary patriarch has tried to broker a settlement of the lawsuit. The only sticking point Smith sees is calculating how much the Laguna church owes Sabolick for severance pay and unreturned personal items versus how much Joe owes the church for funds borrowed for “some projects,” Smith said.

But hammering out a compromise might not be so simple, despite Smith’s hopes.

Millions of Americans love their totally independent congregations that form around charismatic leaders who can unleash fire in the pulpit. But if things go wrong, what then? This is the upside-down, mirror-image story to the Roman Catholic scandals, where people are turning up the heat — rightly so — on the bishops. Well, what do you do when you have no bishops?

Once more into the “religion test” gap

Tim Rutten of the Los Angeles Times has a helpful commentary up today, returning to the issue of whether Judge John G. Roberts Jr. has to shed his Catholic beliefs in order to enter the sacred doors of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Two passages stand out for me, the first a chunk of content-analysis that gives a hint of just how nervous many newspaper people are about this whole “religion test” issue:

Friday, in reporting the contents of the most recently released cache of documents from the young Roberts’ service as a legal advisor to President Reagan, the Washington Post chose to emphasize his opposition to legally expanding women’s rights. At one point, the Post noted in its opening paragraph, Roberts wrote a memo wondering “whether encouraging homemakers to become lawyers contributes to the common good.” The phrase, “common good,” is a bedrock fixture of Catholic social thinking. So, is the sentiment an expression of his religious faith?

By contrast, the Los Angeles Times’ reporters looked at the same memoranda and felt they portrayed Roberts as a remarkably steadfast opponent of commercializing or in any way cheapening the presidency, even when the pressure to do so came from Reagan’s friends. At one point, Roberts urged deletion from a campaign speech of a line that called the United States “the greatest nation God ever created.” The young lawyer dryly noted, “According to Genesis, God creates things like the heavens and the earth, and the birds and the fishes, but not nations.” In our piety-besotted times, that common sense seems a breath of fresh air. Was it a consequence of his Catholic faith?

The missing link here, of course, is that there is intellectual content to the Christian faith and it has, like it or not, had a major impact on Western (and Eastern) culture. So Civil Rights leaders (and junior senators from Illinois) can quote the Bible left and right but judges cannot?

But all of this is, really, beside the point. What reporters want to know is whether this Catholic layman is a good Catholic or a bad Catholic. They want to know if he is a Scalia Catholic or a Kennedy Catholic. They want to know if he is SAFE.

Dr. James Dobson and his camp, of course, want to know precisely the same thing. Only one side’s good is the other’s bad.

So what about the Vatican? Rutten wades into this, briefly. It is clear that Catholics are allowed to be strategic in their thinking. They are allowed to choose the lesser of evils.

But it is also clear what the church believes is evil. This whole battle, you see, is over whether it is even possible — under Roe — to compromise on abortion at all. Will a strict abortion-on-demand regime hold?

The issue is whether Roberts is the man who casts a vote that allows compromise to begin. Here is Rutten again:

UCLA law professor Stephen Bainbridge, who writes about Catholic social thought with great precision, recently noted that the Vatican document most relevant to the questions that have arisen concerning Roberts is its “Doctrinal Note on Some Questions Regarding the Participation of Catholics in Political Life.” When it comes to both the political and judicial spheres, Bainbridge wrote in his blog (www.professorbainbridge.com), “the Church distinguishes between formal and material cooperation with evil.”

Formal cooperation, as the doctrinal note defines it, occurs when a person “gives consent to the evil action of another (the actor). Here the cooperator shares the same intention as the actor.” Material cooperation occurs when “a cooperator performs an action that itself is not evil, but in so doing helps the actor perform another evil action. The moral quality of material cooperation depends upon how close the act of the cooperator is to the evil action, and whether there is a proportionate reason for performing the action.”

A little more than a year ago, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, elaborated on the note by writing, “When a Catholic does not share a candidate’s stand in favor of abortion and/or euthanasia, but votes for that candidate for other reasons, it is considered remote material cooperation, which can be permitted in the presence of proportionate reasons.”

As Bainbridge — whose personal politics are conservative, generally Republican — wrote, “Judicial decision making, even with respect to issues like abortion and euthanasia that raise moral questions under Church teaching, does not per se constitute formal cooperation with evil.”

So here is the question: Is the Vatican more flexible on the issue of abortion, more interested in compromise, than American newspapers?

A pastor in the lobby of hell

So you are the pastor of an ordinary, middle-of-the-road mainline church in the heart of flyover America.

You face the tough issues of life, both public and private. You know many of the secret hopes and terrors of ordinary people, the kinds of everyday challenges that do not make headlines. You help people search for answers.

Then, in a shattering blitz of headlines and camera crews, you find yourself reading stories — this is from CNN.com — such as the following about the BTK murderer, a man that you thought of as a leader in your quiet flock.

Film at 11. And here is the news:

Sgt. Tom Lee testified Rader told him that after strangling his 53-year-old neighbor, Marine Hedge, in her home on April 27, 1985, he took her body to his church where he took photographs of her in bondage positions. Rader dumped the body in a remote ditch.

Lee said Rader told investigators he took the body to the church to “have his way with her” — to fulfill his sexual fantasies.

Rader had left black plastic sheets and other material at the church in anticipation of the killing.

“He advised to me that she was going to the church alive or dead — either way,” Lee said.

That is just the tip of this hellish iceberg.

So you are the pastor at this scene, sitting in that courtroom with the families — on both sides of the terror. You hear the testimony. You hear the verdict. What are you thinking? What are you praying? What questions have you silently screamed at the heavens in recent weeks?

There’s a feature story in there, right? That’s the story that Deb Gruver went after for The Wichita Eagle, writing about Pastor Michael Clark. For starters, he considered majoring in criminology in college. He ended up wrestling with good and evil in another arena, after working as both a teacher and in real estate. Seminary did not prepare him for this.

Gruver has some of the human details. Still, I found myself wanting more. This pastor has been stuck in the foyer of hell and he has to be asking some questions. We see glimpses, but that is all.

Clark has taken some criticism for continuing to minister to Rader. Some have questioned how a church could support a serial killer. Clark has tried to meet with Rader about two times a week. Their most recent meeting was Tuesday morning. He won’t divulge what they talk about it, but he says Rader has shown remorse for his crimes.

Clark says it’s not his job to forgive Rader. That’s God’s job.

“I can guide him to the point where he asks God for forgiveness,” he said.

The experience, Clark says, has helped him grow.

“It never, ever made me question my faith,” he said. “Never. In spite of all the pain and suffering, I still have come to understand that God is being good.

“We say God is the truth,” the minister continues. “I can tell you right now I’ve come to understand that concept in a whole different way. . . . I’ve gotten in touch with evil in a whole different way.”

This is the kind of story that makes people sweat on the theological left and the right. Remember when the unthinkable happened and Jeffrey Dahmer became a born-again Christian and then, while the cynics moaned, actually died trying to protect another man from being beaten in prison? This case could follow a similar path.

Does Rader deserve heaven or hell? The liberal answer is that everyone is going to heaven. For many, that isn’t a comforting answer in this case. But what about the other side of the coin? What if Rader repents? Then the most conservative of Christians has to say that he is bound for heaven. That’s the Good News. But how many people in Wichita want to hear about that doctrine, right now?

I predict that Pastor Clark has given this issue some thought.

Con man, fake priest, sinner

If there are any screenwriters out there who want a bizarre real-life story about original sin, look no further than this amazing (and oh so depressing) Los Angeles Times feature story by Tonya Alanez about the life and times of con man Federiqkoe DiBritto III.

Where to begin? He just wants to do good, even if he can’t straighten out his own life. And the money was just there for the taking.

And what about the times he managed to convince people that he was a priest?

“Emotionally and spiritually, he did real damage to people here in Phoenix,” said Father David Sanfilippo, vicar general of the Phoenix diocese. “To find out that it was an impostor celebrating these sacraments was very hurtful.”

Brito said he regrets fooling the Arizona parishioners, but he sees things differently.

“When I worked in the parish, I gave my heart,” he said. “When I spoke at the Masses, they applauded.”

Brito describes himself as “very” religious and dedicated to fulfilling the needs of others. “I probably would have made a great priest, a great elected official, a great human being,” Brito said. “But I screwed it up.”

He said he prays for forgiveness.

“God came to heal sinners, not perfect people, and I am one of them,” he said.

So who plays this guy in the DreamWorks movie? This guy gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “born again.” Wow. My only knock on this story is that it really cries out for theological insights. No, I mean it. DiBritto is messed up — in a very specific way. The spiritual element of this story cannot be denied. What do Catholic authorities have to say about his angels and demons?

Does GetReligion want to “go there”?

dieties. . . (The) Christian worldview’s truth claims include an admonition for Christians to be “salt, light, and leaven,” individually and collectively, on their spheres of influence. That truth claim presupposes that their spheres of influence would benefit from a collective and intentional Christian influence, and also presupposes such intentional and collective influence is possible.

My perception is that the “Get Religion” blog does not want “to go there” — whether/to what degree Christian journalists should collectively and intentionally influence their profession. I suggest Jay Rosen’s most thoughtful insights, linked to the blog item, on the “religion of journalism,” allude to this — they do not mention how, if at all, Christian journalists (or journalists of other faiths) should collectively and intentionally influence their profession, as an appropriate outworking of that faith and its truth claims.

Posted by Joe at 9:56 am on August 17, 2005

This topic is linked to questions that we hear, from time to time, about the role of religious faith in journalism and, thus, in the work at this blog. This is natural, since faith tends to give journalists sweaty palms and journalism has the same effect on far too many religious leaders. I’ve been working in this particular minefield for decades.

So let me very briefly respond to Joe’s comment that GetReligion does not “want to go there” on the God and journalism issue.

If Christians in the field of journalism influence our field, I hope it is in the same way that religious believers influence the fields of law, art, sports, academia, etc. In other words, that influence is expressed through the quality of their work and in open debates about ethical issues that affect everyone on the job.

In other words, GetReligion is not a site about “Christian journalism.” We are pretty open about our faith around here, but the purpose of the blog is to talk about how to improve MSM coverage of religion news. The goal is diversity. We are pro-journalism. Click here and here for some of foundational essays about that.

Now, I freely admit that any study of media-bias literature tends to point toward conflicts between the press and traditional forms of religion. There’s no way to avoid that. But I am convinced there is more to that topic than some simplistic left vs. right divide. Religious conservatives who claim the MSM is “liberal,” in some traditional meaning of that word, and is out to nail them are not seeing the whole picture. That’s another topic that keeps coming up in this space, from time to time.

The Christians I know who thrive in mainstream journalism (I am active in Gegrapha, for example) are those who want to work in journalism — period. To get theological about it, they see journalism as a part of God’s (glorious and fallen) creation. No more, no less.

To paraphrase that noted theologian James Carville: It’s journalism, stupid.

iPod, therefore iAm (what iAm)

I had one of those moments of techno-transcendence this morning on the MARC train as I rolled into Washington, D.C.

So the mass-media side of me is looking around the train, noticing that about half of the people are wearing iPods or iPod wannabees. The older iPod people are listening and reading — books or newspapers. The younger people are just plugged in.

Then the journalist in me notes a Jose Antonio Vargas story that someone is reading in The Washington Post. You can guess the topic, and the headline sort of says half the equation in a blunt, materialist fashion: “The iPod: A Love Story Between Man, Machine.”

I, of course, start thinking again about the role music plays in self-identity and, thus, in religious faith. GetReligion has visited this topic before, of course.

Please understand that I am interested in some of the openly religious commercial applications of this new form of personal technology. I am even interested in the religious leaders who have started thinking about the implications of the iPod for religious expression in this age (check this out, on a slightly different topic). I am not even talking about the neo-cult status of Steve Jobs and Apple, although the last Windows machine in my personal life should leave the house within a matter of days.

No, I am talking about the spiritual implications of people — supposedly secular people, even — making statements such as this:

“If a song represents a memory in your head, then you listen to your life’s memories — faster than a mixed CD, definitely faster than a mixed tape — as you listen to your iPod,” says the affable, fast-talking Berkowitz, a project manager for a software company, as he sits in his downtown Washington office. “It becomes an extension of you,” he says. “It’s like a window to your soul.”

And then again there is this issue, which raises issues of cultural assimilation and cultural isolationism — at the same time. Does the iPod make you a part of a culture or does it help you avoid it? What if the answer is “yes”?

Fatima Ayub, wearing a white chiffon hijab that matches her iPod’s white earphones, is walking briskly on R Street in Northwest Washington on her way to work. You’d hardly ever see her, she says, without her 15-gigabyte iPod, which has more than 1,300 songs on it.

“Your taste in music is something very personal, very emotional. So when you have an iPod and you’ve got all your music on it, you’re trying to say something about yourself,” says Ayub, 22, an associate for the Asia division of Human Rights Watch and a graduate student at Johns Hopkins University. She’s listening to “A Perfect Sonnet” by the indie rock group Bright Eyes as she sits on a curb near 18th and R streets. Her boyfriend, Imran, learned to play that song on his guitar for her, she says, cracking a shy smile. “You’re making a little collection of emotions and memories for yourself and you stick them all in this little machine and you carry it around with you wherever.”

Has anyone seen someone sitting in a religious sanctuary with an iPod on? Or have many people already chosen a congregation that fits in with the style and content of their iPod? Questions, questions.

P.S. tmatt’s iPod mix for this morning’s ride was the Byrds, with a heavy emphasis — I confess — on spaced-out David Crosby tunes. I don’t think “Triad” is about the Nicene Creed.

Is it a sin to talk to a reporter?

I don’t know how to describe this item other than to say that the omnipresent Ted Olsen of the Christianity Today blog has done an amazing job of writing up a GetReligion case study from a San Bernardino Sun article about ministry in times of sickness and health. The case is so amazing that all I can really say is click here and go read it. Do yourself a favor.

Strange times, strange times

You know we are living in strange times when you are more likely to see the name of progressive heroine Ayaan Hirsi Ali in a Wall Street Journal byline than in a headline linked to a human-rights fest in Hollywood. She is, of course, the Somali-born Dutch liberal who has been forced to live in hiding because of her criticism of radical forms of Islam. Her op-ed essay focuses on issues linked to the rights of women in two nations that seem, at first glance, radically different — Iraq and Canada.

The first is the draft constitution of Iraq, now due next week. Iraqi women like Naghem Khadim, demonstrating on the streets of Najaf, are fighting to prevent an article from being put in the constitution that would establish that the legislature may make no laws that contradict Shariah edicts. The second case is the province of Ontario, in Canada. There, Muslim women led by Homa Arjomand, an activist of Iranian origin, are fighting — using the Canadian Charter of Rights — to keep Shariah from being applied as family law through a so-called Arbitration Act passed as law in Ontario in 1992.

It’s all about religious liberty, isn’t it? Now tell me: Is this a “liberal” issue or a “conservative” issue?


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